Tom is a struggling musician who owes the wrong guys a lot of money and if he doesn’t pay up quickly they’re going to do some very bad things to Tom’s wife, Maddy. Maddy isn’t aware of any of this, she’s a dresser on a fashion shoot and she’s got problems of her own. But when she jokingly tells Tom how much money is wrapped up in the shoot (“One piece of jewellery is worth three months’ rent”) and mentions that it’s all covered by insurance so if any of it disappeared nobody would really lose out, Tom sees a solution to his problem.
But robbing a fashion shoot in the middle of the desert isn’t as simple as it seems - things go very wrong and get very bloody very fast - and when Maddy recognises one of the robbers, the stakes are raised even higher…
On the surface The Shoot is a heist movie with a heart, but it’s much more than that. At its core is a brutally honest, very sharply written and performed examination of how good people forced into a desperate corner can sometimes make extremely bad decisions, and the consequences that follow. It has been called ‘Tarantino-esque’ but in this reviewer’s opinion, The Shoot puts Tarantino in the shade: part thriller, part black comedy, with a tiny dose of horror thrown in, The Shoot is one of those rare films that lingers in the front of your mind long after the end credits have faded.
The Shoot is a Wonder Wheel production, a very special ‘artistic collaboration’ run by husband-and-wife team Toby Poser and John Adams along with their daughters, Lulu and Zelda. Toby and John not only star in the film as Maddy and Tom, they also wrote the script and shared directorial duties (with Lulu and Zelda behind the cameras as well). And as if that couldn’t keep them busy enough, Toby produced the film and John was Director of Photography and Film Editor, as well as Composer (beware – there’s a great song in The Shoot which won’t leave your head once it’s inside it).
Maybe it’s this unique ‘family quality’ that makes The Shoot such a terrific film to watch. There’s an assurance and honesty, and a genuine love for cinema, that shines through every frame. But when we had the chance to talk with Toby and John, there was one obvious question to ask first:
STARBURST: Where did the story come from?
John Adams: It comes from a couple of places, but mostly the original idea was from back in the nineties when I was a model, I’d done a job in Morocco and I started thinking what would happen if someone came and basically tried to rob this shoot I was on because we had tons of expensive jewellery and cash and clothes and we were a bunch of fashion clowns! I thought how funny it would be to have a fashion crew stuck in a brutal environment under brutal circumstances.
So what’s the process when you sit down to write a script together?
Toby Poser: We’re about to go through our usual routine right now, which is we’re going to take a hike with our dog. We live up against a state park in Los Angeles and by the time we get to the top of the mountain and back down, we’ve usually got through everything we want to tackle for that day. We call it our ‘office’! So we go for our hike and then we come back and work on things separately and then come together and have a meeting of minds or today we’re going to come back down from the mountain and just go over the next part – the current film we’re writing.
JOHN: On our first movie Rumblestrips, Toby wrote the original script and then she brought it to me and we talked through it and I added my ideas. On our next movie Knuckle Jack, I wrote the script, I went to her and showed it to her and she gave me her ideas. Usually, there’s a driving-ideas person and then the other person hopefully takes away all the crap and puts in some gold.
Were there any differences between the first draft of The Shoot and what eventually made it on screen?
TOBY: The two were very different. We had a similar storyline but very different characters, a totally different pulse from the film that we actually shot. It changed quite a bit.
The desert scenery in The Shoot is a character in itself. Did you know from the start you were going to use Joshua Tree as a location?
JOHN: No, we love camping and we had this great spot out in the Mojave Desert; a beautiful isolated spot about four hours outside of Los Angeles and we wanted to shoot there. But we had to go through a permit process with the State and they were dragging their feet. It was ridiculous, I actually don’t think they wanted us to shoot out there, so then we just checked in to Joshua Tree thinking there’d be no way they’d let us use it but it turned out to be the easiest location ever. Wonderful people to work with and only two hours outside of Los Angeles so it was a dream come true. If we’d have shot where we originally planned I don’t think we’d have got through the movie because it’s such an isolated spot, our crew and our actors would have fired us!
TOBY: We would have been royally screwed, to be honest. We just wouldn’t have got it done. We’d have been too far from the accommodations and food. So it was one of those times where mistakes become gold for you.
With all of our films, we’ve shot a lot outside and we always think of the outdoors as another character and to be treated as such in our films. Sometimes just where you’re shooting can take care of a lot of the work for you.
JOHN: In our first movie, our second and this movie our surroundings are definitely an incredibly important character. We love beauty… and ugliness! And I think they play an incredibly important role in all our lives and sometimes what’s really fun is you can be living a beautiful life in an incredibly ugly spot and just the opposite, you can have an ugly life in a beautiful spot, and we love to play with those themes.
How did you cast your actors?
TOBY: The most important thing to us was that we worked with people who like to work the way we work. We have this approach that ‘we’ll feed you well, you’ll have a great time, but we won’t coddle you and you won’t be drinking out of gold chalices!’ and fortunately there wasn’t one person in our cast and small crew who didn’t fit that mould.
Basically, we cast some people we knew, and we knew they were great and talented and we love working with them, and for the two models we went to John’s agency here in LA and sat down and interviewed some of the guys who wanted to audition for the film. If we jived then we invited them to send in an audition tape. The actor we cast for our male model we loved on the spot. The woman who played the female model was out of New York and she really won that role, we never even met her before the shoot, and she was incredible. They all gave so much more than just their talents.
JOHN: Yes, we had a great crew! They carried camera equipment, they helped us make food, they pulled splinters, they chased snakes away! This was a great group of people and we could not have done it without them. And it was a big crew…
TOBY: At the most, it was about twenty people.
JOHN: …which for us was insane. On our other two movies, we only ever shot with four people at a time. It was a big leap.
TOBY: Our two daughters Lulu and Zelda didn’t act in this film (they usually act in our films) but they’re always involved in every department, whether it’s mixing the sound, running the camera… up in the cliffs, shooting the action from above. They also entertain the actors. They have a dance act!
At the time the film was made your daughters were ten and fifteen. Were there any scenes you didn’t want them to see – the shoot-out’s pretty violent – or are they just used to the make-believe?
JOHN: It’s very important to us that our kids are our friends and our peers and, to be honest, we don’t hide anything from them. Toby and I both had pretty wild lives and we put it all out there so we don’t have to lie, we don’t have to think about making up stories, we tell our daughters the truth and that includes when we’re making movies. They love movies. Our youngest girl, her favourite movie is Kick Ass. If she can handle Kick Ass she can handle anything we’re doing!
So do you think the intimacy of your family unit is what gives your films an extra edge? The sense everyone’s in this together?
JOHN: I hope so. We wanted to make The Shoot a thriller but we didn’t want to make the classic thriller that is just like guns, explosions, blood and guts and then the hero walks away. We wanted to make a thriller that had kind of a ‘feet on the ground’ feeling to it… violent crime is brutal and it happens with regular people making bad mistakes and hopefully that’s what we’re giving the thriller – these are regular people making huge mistakes and dealing with heavy consequences.
You can definitely see the progression with Tom’s character wondering ‘how can I get out of this loan shark situation and protect my family without anyone getting hurt’ and then it all goes wrong. And the shift between Tom and his friend Dougie, the power shift. There is so much texture to the story.
JOHN: Sam (Rodd) who played Dougie was just stunningly wonderful. I love his character and how he changed from kind of a simple follower to a brutal leader and I thought what he did – and he was so fun to work with – he really brought everything to the character, he realised the character in a wonderful way.
Did you improvise at all, or was the final script pretty much locked down?
JOHN: No, we’re not a locked down crew! Sam and I did a lot of off-the-cuff stuff, partly because Sam is great at that, and we like improvising because lines don’t feel so stagnant. We knew what we needed to accomplish in a scene and we shot some of the scenes quite a bit, in fact sometimes we’d come home, didn’t like what we did and drive back up to the desert and do it again. That’s how we operate because we have a small budget and we move quickly, so we do ad-lib a lot of stuff in trying to accomplish a certain theme.
How long did it take to shoot?
TOBY: We shot over two months spaced out, but the bulk of all the desert scenes - with our crew – we were out there for a week.
And John, you DP’d as well?
JOHN: I did, but our daughter Lulu was also a big part of that. Lulu and I set up a lot of scenes together, a lot of framing of shots, she’s a really great person to bounce ideas off of and her point of view is really honest and not very cluttered yet, so she’s awesome to set up a frame with and ask her opinion. A lot of the nature shots, Lulu and I would go out to the desert and shoot those together. She played a huge role in that.
TOBY: Something else we did that we’ve never done before, we had a good friend of ours who’s also a filmmaker – Michael Hall – come out to be our AD. He helped us from absolutely every angle during our production and he was also great with the camera and so at times, particularly during the shoot-out which was shot very frenetically, he would have a camera and I would have a camera so we could work in tandem. Also with our daughter, sometimes we would have three cameras running at once and that was really cool; it definitely allowed us to cover our asses.
JOHN: Mike was great. He had an interesting way to frame shots and taught me a lot too. When we were doing the character scenes and group things, I loved the way he framed up the people.
There’s a great use of music, especially in the way you’d suddenly cut certain scenes to the beat, it completely changed the pace of moments and kept the story cooking.
JOHN: What I like to do is figure out the soundtrack before I even shoot anything because I think sound really defines the feeling of the movie and I like to know what the feeling of the movie is before we start shooting it. I wanted it to have a dirty techno rock-and-roll feel because it was a mix between fashion and these two rockers, and I was trying to get that dirty rock mixed with that kind of glossy techno-house kind of stuff. I loved working on the music. It was a really fun project.
Do you have any inspirations when you make your movies? Do you sit down beforehand and watch other people’s films that were trying to accomplish similar things?
JOHN: We really want to try and make movies that are honest - like you’re filming your neighbours - so we watch movies to look at other moviemakers who are doing that. Even when we go to a big Hollywood film – we just saw American Sniper – we drive home and we talk about which parts of the film were honest, which parts were believable, which parts were people that are our neighbour. I think that’s what’s interesting about movies and Toby and I agree on that. So I don’t think we ever have anyone in particular that we try to emulate except to emulate the people who film real people, put stories into real people’s lives.
So when the two of you put Wonder Wheel together, was that your mission statement?
JOHN: (to Toby) Hmm… what’s our mission statement?
TOBY: When we started out, I don’t think we knew what we were getting into but we were hoping we would find it and I think we did. On that first project – Rumblestrips – we took off for a year in an RV, home-schooled the kids, travelled around the country, shot all over, and formulated a story around that. So I think our mission statement would be to find… oh man…!
JOHN: This is what our mission statement is… I think our mission statement is ‘we like filming broken people trying to pick the pieces back up and put them together’. That’s what all our movies entail. In The Shoot they don’t get the pieces back together, in Rumblestrips they never get all the pieces back together, and I think that’s what we find interesting about life; watching people struggle with real life circumstances and dealing with real life consequences and even though the consequences might not be a Hollywood sunset they still show a strength of character because a stronger character is someone who doesn’t ride off into the sunset, a stronger character is someone who deals with their circumstances standing up and that’s what we try to do in our movies. That’s our mission statement – I think!
TOBY: That was good! I liked it!
JOHN: As soon as the interview’s over we’re going to work on it further!
But isn’t that what the greatest filmmaking is about? To show characters with strengths and weaknesses and how they overcome, or don’t overcome, what’s pitched against them?
JOHN: That’s what we want to do. We want to find that middle ground that’s not black or white or high or low. Celebrate the truth.
In a recent podcast interview, you mentioned the possibility of doing a horror film…
JOHN: We’re working on a couple of different movies. The one that’s lined up right now, that we’re just about to start shooting, is back to a fun drama. Toby’s writing a psychological horror film…
TOBY: I’m working on what could probably best be called a ‘haunted western’. It’s not so much a horror film as a human horror which is always, for me, more interesting than knives and machetes. So it’s a western with a little bit of a ghost story thrown in, set during the American western migration in the late 1840s. It’ll be interesting. At the moment it’s hard to get out of the research mode because I’m loving it so much and when the time comes it will be shot entirely outdoors which is something we’re comfortable with so I’m really looking forward to that.
JOHN: One of the things we’ve learned from The Shoot, we’ve gotten a lot of press from horror-type outlets and although I’ve always loved horror I have to say from reading lots of articles about lots of other horror movies that I’m really looking at horror in a different way. I’ve realised that good horror is incredibly difficult, so when we eventually venture in we are definitely talking about doing a real, straight-ahead horror movie, and we know that to pull that off we’ve got to be incredibly clever because there’s a lot of bad slapstick horror out there.
And a silly The Shoot-inspired question to end: you’re each on your own, out in the desert, no civilisation in sight, which one of you would survive longest?
JOHN: I think Toby would last longest because whenever we go camping… we camp a lot… Toby always brings a bag of treats. So if we separated she would have the bag of treats and I would be all by myself without the bag of treats! Maybe it’s time I started carrying a bag of treats in my pocket, just in case!THE SHOOT will be released later this year.